What should happen to strategic planning?

As part of our collaborative approach to responding to the Planning White Paper, we continue to share ‘drafts’ to individual questions. We are doing this to give as many people the chance as possible to what civic societies are saying to us, and to give you a chance to influence our final submission as it evolves.

The latest question is about the Duty to Cooperate. Share your thoughts with us via: info@civicvoice.org.uk.

7(b). How could strategic, cross-boundary issues be best planned for in the absence of a formal Duty to Cooperate?

The first part of our answer deals with the proposal to remove the Duty to Cooperate and the second part with possible alternatives.

Principle of removing the Duty to Co-operate

The proposed removal of the Duty to Co-operate is worthy of discussion, as feedback from our members has been that it has not been an effective replacement mechanism for regional spatial strategies, abolished in 2010, and we are aware of Local Plans that have failed the legal test at the examination stage[1], having to start the process again.

Common queries from civic societies about the ‘duty’ is that the process is a mystery to communities, inaccessible and not a transparent part of the planning system.

There is some suspicion that local authorities who do not want to adopt a local plan because it may be politically contentious are using the Duty to Co-operate as a ‘get-out’ clause. One Civic Society commented that it is a ‘duty to engage’ and not a ‘duty to agree’ and that for it to be really valuable, early and open engagement needs to happen – with political will to support the planners. It is much easier to blame the Planning Inspectorate as to why a local plan has not been adopted than for local politicians to show leadership and make difficult decisions. With difficult decisions comes political accountability. 

Communities recognise that the Duty to Co-operateis flawed, because local politics in neighbouring authorities can often have conflicting local visions for growth. With the current Duty to Co-operate, we query, where is the incentive for local authorities to plan positively to meet development needs across administrative boundaries, when there is no requirement to agree? This is particularly acute where there are constraints such as Green Belt, when such development has become so highly politicised.  

Civic Voice welcomes the Government considering alternatives to Duty to Co-operate, but we would not support removing the current duty without fully considering all options and introducing a workable solution for the whole country, as we believe a vacuum in strategic planning in the interim could lead to further delays and make it exceedingly more difficult to ensure that enough new homes are planned for.

Civic Voice urges Government that before the Duty to Co-operate is removed, we have a certainty over its replacement. It is essential that we have ‘larger than local planning’ to ensure that we positively plan to meet needs and tackle the bigger issues that cross boundaries such as addressing climate change, providing strategic infrastructure to support economic and housing growth and tackling regional inequalities through the ‘levelling up’ agenda. This is where collaboration between Government and stakeholders, including communities, is needed. For it to be valuable, early, and open engagement needs to happen, to help build public trust.

Possible alternatives

Currently, there is a messy picture of strategic planning arrangements across the country with some statutory joint strategic and local plans, a regional plan in London, and a series of non-statutory strategic growth frameworks/plans. Some parts of the country have Combined Authorities and Metro Mayors and we aware of the Government’s plans to for further devolution and reorganisation of local government. There are also 38 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) within England with different geographic boundaries to local authorities and joint/strategic plans. With this in mind, we believe that any replacement must be mindful of the existing strategic plans and bodies, provides some consistency across the country and ensures that the ‘sum of the parts meets the whole’.        

Collaborative strategic planning must be carried out to address the most pressing issues facing the nation such as economic recovery, meeting housing need and demand, climate change and reducing inequality.

It may be appropriate for Mayors of combined authorities to oversee the strategic distribution of housing and other development requirements, however, without complete coverage across the country, this proposal alone would not address the collaborative strategic approach that is needed for areas without a Mayor. We also believe that any strategic planning bodies going forward such as Combined Authorities must have an accessible, balanced, collaborative and democratic process, which involves communities at an early stage, to ensure that any strategic plans remain rooted in local communities.

LEPs could also play a role, but we would want the Government to make clear that it expects to see civic society and communities represented on such groups.

Should we go back to the regional level?

It is interesting to note that further consideration is being given in the White Paper to how to plan for strategic cross boundary issues

We already have a regional plan for London, so why not elsewhere? Whether you were a fan of them or not, the implications of the abolition of regional strategic for levels of housing development are still being felt today. The abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies has been a major barrier to the effective delivery of housing and infrastructure. It has led to a ‘messy picture’ of how planning is delivered across the country – from neighbourhood planning, to combined authorities, to the National Infrastructure Commission. It has highlighted the development of an ad hoc planning system driven by bespoke devolution deals. This is not strategic planning.

Clearly RSS were unpopular in many parts of England, with some people accusing them of being undemocratic, however, they did provide a framework for developing strategic planning and housing policies, including facilitating debate and mediation on the broad distribution of development and housing. Supporters of them still talk about their comprehensive, strategic view of planning across each region.

However, limited it might be, even something setting out a Regional Vision with objectives would be a start but to have an effect, it would need ‘teeth’ and be recognised. We have to stop saying ‘it is politically toxic to talk about regions’.

To a ‘National Plan’ and beyond!

To quote the UK 2070 Commission[2], “Currently, the future of the UK is being shaped by the incremental, short-term and ad hoc nature of government policy”.

We should not be looking for the popular decisions but should be looking for good decisions and the right solution. We support the UK 2070’s commission call for a national spatial plan: http://uk2070.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/UK2070-FINAL-REPORT.pdf

Civic Voice supports the need for a national spatial strategy which sets national priorities and within that framework you have regional or sub-regional planning.   A national spatial strategy would be a planning framework to plan for the whole of England, with aims to improve, balance up, and deliver the objectives of the country from housing, climate change, infrastructure, social equality and would be the place to meaningfully start to tackle the national ‘levelling up’ agenda.

There is potential to start this work quickly by appointing a new body, chaired by the Planning Minister, with the ability to reach across government departments and bring together existing national organisations such as the National Infrastructure Commission, HS2, Northern Powerhouse and Homes England. Without the national leadership, we will not address the challenges we face. This could be the single biggest change to the system that could form part of the radical solution that the Government wants.


[1] https://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1681910/why-councils-struggling-meet-duty-cooperate

[2] http://uk2070.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/UK2070-FINAL-REPORT.pdf

What should happen to strategic planning?

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